Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert was wrong: It isn’t true that 'Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have nothing to do with each other.' Photo by Screenshot from the Colbert Report
Text size

Thanksgivukkah is a brand-new word, but its origins stretch back to antiquity. So as the once-in-a-lifetime holiday draws near, let us follow the etymological trail of its name from the dawn of civilization to the 21st century − in reverse.

You don’t have to have a PhD in linguistics to realize that “Thanksgivukkah” is a portmanteau, a word created by concatenating two or more words together. Incidentally the word “portmanteau” is a portmanteau itself coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.

At about this time last year, Boston resident Dana Gitell was driving to work. She had already noticed that Hanukkah would fall on Thanksgiving in 2013, and was thinking what a special thing that was − and what one might call the holiday. “By the time I got to work, I had thought of “Thanksgivukkah,” Gitell described the moment she came up with her neologism to thanksgivukkahboston.com.

No dawdler she, by that night Gitell had bought up the URL, and created Twitter and Facebook accounts. She would later register “Thanksgivukkah” as a registered trademark.

Possibly when creating the portmanteau for the holiday, Gitell was influenced by another mashup holiday with a mashup name - “Chrismukkah,” which takes place when Christmas and Hanukkah coincide.

Chrismukkah is far more common than Thanksgivukkah. While Thanksgivukkah only happened once before, in 1888, and will most likely never happen again, Chrismukkah usually happens three times a decade. It seems that people started using the word “Chrismukkah” as far back as 1996 − it can be found on Internet message boards from the second half of the 1990s.

In print it seems “Chrismukkah” made its debut in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1999, with a reference to a “Chrismukkah tree” − a “December pine tree decorated with the Star of David and other Hanukkah symbols as well as Christmas ornaments.”

But it was only once Fox’s teen drama “The O.C.” aired an episode titled “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” in December 2003 has the term really entered popular culture.

Proto-Germanic tribesmen weigh in

Now let’s set our sights on Thanksgivukkah’s components, starting with “thanksgiving.” The word itself is yet another portmanteau, its components being “thank” and “giving”, which are both older than English itself. They can be traced back to the proto-Germanic tongue where “thank” originally meant “to think” and “gebana,” the forerunner of “give” had the same meaning as its modern descendant.

The expression itself in all its glory dates back to the English Protestant Reformation in the 17th century, when radical reformers were trying to curb the wild proliferation of church holidays. They proposed to replace the incessant church breaks from life with services of “thanksgiving” to thank God for various good fortunes, such as a successful voyage or a good harvest, which they saw as the work of providence.

The first Thanksgiving Day celebration, said to have taken place in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, was one such celebration of an especially good harvest. Apparently this celebration was so memorable that an annual holiday was created, though the first known reference to it is only from 1674, in John Josselyn’s “An Account of Two Voyages to New-England.” “Towards night I returned to Boston again, the next day being Thanksgiving day, on Fryday the Tenth day we weighed Anchor,” the English traveler wrote.

Thanksgiving was made an official American holiday during the Civil War: In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Meanwhile, 2,000 years earlier in the Middle East, a Jewish holiday was born.

Hanukkah, the second part of the word “thanksgivukkah,” is the name of the Festival of Lights, commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem after the Maccabees vanquished the Greeks in the 2nd Century BCE, as described in the apocryphal First Book of Maccabees. “Then said Judas and his brothers, ‘Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.’” (1 Maccabees, 4:36)

The word “Hanukkah” appears in the Bible as a noun meaning “dedication.” “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps” (Nehemiah, 12:27).

Though we call the holiday “Hanukkah,” this is really a shorthand form of the holiday’s original name, “The Holiday of the Dedication ('Hanukkah') of the Temple” as it appears in the First Book of Maccabees. “And Judah and his brothers commanded that all the people of Israel shall celebrate the holiday of the dedication of the Temple on the 25th day of the month of Kislev every year in praise and thanks to God.”

As we can see from the quote above, even before the two holidays Hanukkah and Thanksgiving were celebrated, the two were already intellectually intertwined. Stephen Colbert was wrong: It isn’t true that “Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have nothing to do with each other.” Actually, they are really about the same thing.